August 04, 2009

Death and Delusions

The Memory of Water
by Shelagh Stephenson
State Theatre Company of SA
Dunstan Playhouse. August 4

The Hypochondriac
by Moliere, adapted by Paul Galloway
Brink Productions
The Space. August 5

Arabian Night
By Roland Schimmelpfennig
Accidental Productions
The Bakehouse. August 13

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

A death in the family is not only a time of sadness, it also brings together friends, relatives, estranged siblings and blasts from the past. Old griefs join new ones, past memories are not only revived but, as recollections compete, are disputed and even fabricated. Shelagh Stephenson’s 1996 play The Memory of Water has three sisters returning to the wintry northern England town of Whitby – to the ghost of their mother and quite a few of their own as well.

In this State Theatre production, much enhanced by the shrewd detail in Mary Moore’s neatly observed décor, director Catherine Fitzgerald has a sometimes unwieldy task with Stephenson’s over-long script, as it moves between drawing room black comedy and the pathos and regret of secrets and betrayals. Of course, deaths and funerals are noted for their wild mood swings, but the capable cast often finds the dramatic development they work hard to achieve is undercut by glib one-liners and extended farce.

As Mary, the neurologist returning to discover painful revelations about a lost child, Ulli Birve is especially memorable, but despite some repetitive text, Kate Roberts and Nadia Rossi, as sisters Theresa and Catherine, also do well. Peter Ferris and Tony Briggs engagingly play the bewildered blokes and Eugenia Fragos is intriguing as Vi, the mother both misunderstanding and misunderstood.

There is nothing more sickening than the exploitation of the seriously ill, but when the healthy delude themselves that they need constant medical attention they become figures of fun. Moliere’s The Hypchondriac (aka The Imaginary Invalid) is a four hundred year old reminder that, when lacking proportion, our fear of mortality makes us gullible as well as laughable. In Brink Productions’ excellent production, based on a freshly tweaked adaptation by Paul Galloway, Argan, the central character, splendidly played by Paul Blackwell, is so self-preoccupied he can’t tell his friends from his enemas.

With Wendy Todd’s simple draped set, Stuart Day’s apt and amusing onstage music, and Geoff Cobham’s expressive lighting, the Brink crew bring briskness and flair to the commedia dell’ arte set pieces about foolish fathers, thwarted lovers, clever servants and nasty imposters which Moliere appropriated to make his own artful and trenchant social observation.

The actors excel – Jacqy Phillips as the outspoken Toinette, Emily Branford and Nathan O’Keefe as the star-crossed lovers and Rory Walker as a slippery lawyer and a gormless suitor – preferred by Argan for his daughter’s hand because he is a doctor and thus able to give the old miser 24 hour medical attention. Carmel Johnson plays, with relish, the scheming wife, Beline, Terence Crawford brings common sense as Argan’s brother, Beralde and Edwin Hodgeman is mesmerically funny with his medico-babble as the bogus dottore Diafoirus.

And Blackwell’s Argan, whether counting his money, berating his family, or fawning to his doctors, is a marvellous portrait of comic folly. With its slopping chamber pots, orchestrated flatulence, its irrigations and emetics, the production reminds us of the low comedy of the body, while its sharply fashioned wit provides cerebral pleasures also. The Hypochondriac is another Brink production destined for wider success . This is a medicine show that should definitely go on the road.

Now in their sixth production, Accidental Productions are charting progress that is anything but accidental. Arabian Night, a phantasmagoria by German writer Roland Schimmelpfennig, turns the everyday lives of tenants in an apartment block into a dream – and then nightmare – of illusion, transformation and deadly retribution. Ably directed by Joh Hartog with a cleverly thrifty design by Casey van Sebille, and strong performances, especially from Alice Darling, Brendan Rock and Jessica Barnden, Arabian Night is a magic carpet ride both fascinating and unsettling.

Commissioned but not published by The Adelaide Review.

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